My best reads of 2015

>> Thursday, December 31, 2015

So, best reads of 2015. This didn't feel like a great reading year, and that was all about me going through a bit of a romance reading slump. When I started looking back through my spreadsheet, there were loads of books I enjoyed, just not many in the romance genre.

In the second half of the year I actually went through a 5-month period where I didn't read even one romance that I rated a B+ or better. Everything I tried felt really lackluster. Not sure if it's me or where the romance genre is going, but it's still going on. I hope that changes in 2016.

I haven't tried to come up with a top whatever number of books. Below I list the ones I rated A, plus a selection of the B+ titles that, after a few months, still make an impression.

Hope you all had a fantastic 2015, and here's to an even better 2016!

Shining Through, by Susan Isaacs: A+

I wasn't sure whether I should include this here, since it was a reread, but hey, why not? This is an old favourite, the story of a secretary in 1940s New York whose humdrum life changes in unexpected ways. It's got one of my favourite characters ever, the incomparable Linda Voss, and I adore the writing.

Mirror Dance, by Lois McMaster Bujold: A

I was in the middle of reading this one when I posted my 'Best of 2014' list, and I could already see I'd need to save it a spot on this year's. Having read a lot further in the series now (as you can see below!), I can say that this is where things start to get really, really, REALLY good. This is the book where we get to know Miles' brother Mark and where he comes into his own, which is something I didn't know I want. I thought I didn't, but Bujold clearly knows best!

Memory, by Lois McMaster Bujold: A

Memory is completely different to Mirror Dance. It's a much quieter book, with what's really a mystery plot... a very good one. It's also the book where Miles Vorkosigan and Admiral Naismith come together and become one person. A super satisfying read.

A Civil Campaign, by Lois McMaster Bujold: A+

The culmination of Miles's romance (it starts in Komarr, which I loved but not quite enough to include it in this list... there are enough Vorkosigan books here anyway!). It's a wonderful read, featuring Miles at his most Miles-ish, which is something that leads to both disaster and triumph. Brilliant.

The Girl With All the Gifts, by MR Carey: A-

This is a post-apocalyptic zombie novel narrated from the point of view of a little girl who, we realise quite quickly, is actually one of the very zombies that terrify the rest of the population. Great storytelling, culminating in one of the best endings I've ever read.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell: A-

Mitchell's most traditionally-structured novel, it tells the story of characters, both Dutch and Japanese, living around Nagasaki in 1799-1800. It's super fun as an adventure novel, but it also has wonderful characters and an excellent sense of place. And as usual, Mitchell's writing just sucks me in...

Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell: A-

This is the third book I've read from Rowell, and they've all been quite different. This is about the protagonist learning to make her own way in life during her first year in university. It's funny and sweet and I wanted to hug her so hard!

Why I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming, by Mike Brown: A-

I bought this ages ago but only picked it up around the time the New Horizons probe was going past Pluto. It seemed timely :) Anyway, it was wonderful. Brown has a really engaging writing style, and he never lost my interest. I was entertained by the skullduggery and manouvering (who knew?) and fascinated by the details of what exactly it is that an astromer does. Did I choose the wrong career?

A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler: A-

Probably my favourite of the Man Booker books (it's either this one or A Little Life -see below). It's the story of a family, told in ways that are structurally really interesting but don't get in the way of the story and the characters. I loved that such a domestic story was shortlisted!

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers: B+

A quiet, character-focused science fiction story. There's a plot (and quite an interesting one, too), but the story is basically all about the interpersonal relationships of a spaceship's multi-species crew. It's a celebration of good people trying to be good people.

A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara: B+

This was the other book I really liked on the Man Booker shortlist. It starts out seeming like it's going to be the story of four friends in New York, but soon focuses on one of them, Jude. Jude is a survivor of horrific abuse as a child, and that abuse has had lasting consequences, both physical and psychological. The book is an in-depth exploration of his life and struggles. It's pretty harrowing (even though some elements are so over-the-top that this diminishes their impact), hard to read emotionally, but with prose that grabs you and keeps you turning the pages compulsively.

Blonde Date, by Sarina Bowen: A-

New Adult novella with a nerd-perfect princess plot, which is not usually a favourite of mine. This one worked for me completely. Bowen managed to make it clear that Katie wasn't an object to Andy, and her attraction for him felt just as well-developed. It felt just right.

The Beast of Blackmoor, by Milla Vane: B+

Milla Vane is a pseudonym for Meljean Brook, who's one of my favourite authors, so I was predisposed to like it. It's a setting I'd never come across before for romance, a sort of mythical barbarian time. It's quite a dark romance, but Vane manages to keep enough hope in there and avoids it going into stereotypically grimdark territory. It's a novella and I was left wanting more, so definitely a success.

A Desperate Fortune, by Susanna Kearsley: B+

This one has Kearsley's usual dual-timeline storylines and, also as usual, both are fascinating. I particularly loved the heroine in the present-day story and the hero in the one in the past, who starts out actually quite scary and is revealed only gradually as a sweetie.

Trade Me, by Courtney Milan: B+

I'm always a bit doubtful about historical romance authors moving to contemporary, but Milan has done it beautifully. Her characters felt truly modern, and I liked the way she played with the "let's switch lives" idea. It's a lot more complex than the use of the trope might indicate, probably because that isn't what the book is about at all.


On holiday

>> Thursday, December 10, 2015

It's December, so I'm off to Uruguay to visit family again. The bags are packed (mostly full of spidermen and minions for my nephew) and the kindle and mp3 player are charged and loaded in preparation for 24 hours of travelling. I'm connecting in Paris with a very quick turnaround, so wish me luck

Looking forward to my morning walks.
I'll be posting my best of 2015 at the end of the year... it's written up with the best books so far, but I've been saving a few for my trip, so I'm hoping I'll have to add a few more. In the meantime, I'd like to wish you all a lovely Christmas and a great end to 2015 and even better start to 2016. Bye bye, and thanks so much for visiting! x


Blonde Date, by Sarina Bowen

>> Wednesday, December 09, 2015

TITLE: Blonde Date
AUTHOR: Sarina Bowen

PUBLISHER: Self-published

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: New Adult romance
SERIES: I think it might be related to some of Bowen's other books

A blind date. A nervous sorority girl. A mean-spirited fraternity prank. What could go wrong?

As a sorority pledge, there are commandments that Katie Vickery must live by. One: thou shalt not show up for the party without a date. Two: the guy shall be an athlete, preferably an upperclassman.

Unfortunately, Katie just broke up with her jerkface football player boyfriend. Even worse, her last encounter with him resulted in utter humiliation. She’d rather hide under the bed than attend a party where he'll be.

Yet staying home would mean letting him win.

Enjoying herself tonight was out of the question. She could only hope to get through the evening without her blind date noticing that he was spending the evening with a crazy person.

Andrew Baschnagel is living proof that nice guys don’t finish first. He’s had his eye on Katie since the moment her long legs waltzed into his art history class. So when her roommate sets Andy up to be Katie’s date, he’d be crazy to say no. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have a lot of practice with either girls or parties. Yet.

Last year I tried the first of Sarina Bowen's Ivy Years books, The Year We Fell Down and was very underwhelmed. The romance just didn't work for me. There were some good things there, though, so when I read a couple of reviews of Blonde Date which appealed to me, I gave her another shot.

Well, I absolutely loved it.

Katie Vickery and Andy Baschnagel are going out on a blind date. Well, half blind. Katie doesn't know Andy, but Andy knows her, from afar. In fact, he's had a bit of a crush on her for a while, but he never thought the perfect blonde sorority girl who only dates football players would give a nerdy basketball player the time of day. But Katie's just been through an experience with her ex which has left her shaken, and she needs a date to a sorority party where she's sure to see the jerk. Thus, her friend fixes her up with Andy.

This is basically a nerd / perfect princess story, which is not my favourite. I always feel a bit disappointed when the smart, nicer than anyone else hero is obsessed with the beautiful girl he doesn't know. There's an element of that in Andy's initial crush, but it's soon clear after he and Katie get to know each other that there's real chemistry there. It's clear that, whatever the reason for his initial crush, Katie is much more than the perfect princess for him.

I also liked what Bowen did with Katie herself. She's someone who has been pretty shallow, the sort of girl who's determined to be in a sorority and be popular and date only athletes. However, her confidence has been dinged, and this has brought her to appreciate kindness and decency over cachet.

I also loved that one of the big themes here is the issue of consent, and Bowen addresses it both explicitly and through the way she develops the romance. The love scene, for instance, is a good example of that. It's very uniquely written, not your usual love scene, which might mean that some readers will feel cheated. I liked it, myself, but I'm someone who's been feeling bored with love scenes in romance for quite a while. The emphasis here is on the preliminaries and the whole thing illustrates the characters and their personalities perfectly.

I also particularly liked the ending. It's from an unexpected point of view and it makes it clear that Katie and Andy are building something together. It does so in a completely non-saccharine way. It also gives us emotional justice for what happened to Katie. I wanted blood, really, but this was enough to give me assurance that the culprit had at least received some punishment.



Fun science and mysterious cooking

>> Tuesday, December 08, 2015

TITLE: What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions
AUTHOR: Randall Munroe

I loved the premise for this book. Basically, it does what it says on the tin. Munroe takes a reader's absurd (or maybe not so absurd!) hypothetical question (If humanity disappeared, what would be the last light to go off? Can you build a jetpack by strapping machine guns to your back and firing them downwards? What's the furthest a human being has been to any other human being?), and answers it seriously. With the help of stick figure cartoons.

Sometimes it's intuitive, sometimes it takes quite a bit of science. The delight of this, really, is seeing the approach Munroe takes to each question. My favourites are the ones where he takes a sideways approach, one that surprises the reader because it's so non-obvious. My least favourite ones were the chapters that were merely detailed working out of the physics. Those I found a bit boring.

I guess it's kind of pointless to do a review of this one. Go to If you like what you see, you'll like this book. If you don't, you won't like this book either. Simple. Me, I like both very much.


TITLE: The Mystery Writers of America Cookbook: Wickedly Good Meals and Desserts to Die For
AUTHOR: Kate White (ed)

This really is a cookbook. Each author provides a recipe and writes up a little intro, sometimes seriously, giving the history of the recipe, sometimes jokingly, from the point of view of their character. Those were fun to read and I did check out a few of the authors based on their voice in their little segments.

As a recipe book, however, it was mostly useless to me. Way too many recipes had ingredients that weren't really ingredients, but processed food, and even when there were proper ingredients, it was often stuff that's only available in the US. Often the problem was a combination of the two: ingredients that are processed food only available in the US. We're talking things like one of the authors listing "1 package Pillsbury Crescent dinner rolls" (I don't even know what that is!) and several recipes prescribing "Miracle Whip" (again, not sure I've ever seen that here). Other recipes have authors suggesting particular brands of things like "dry ranch dressing mix" (I have no idea what is special about brand X, so I can't really substitute it properly) or types of cheese I can't find here (e.g. Winsconsin red hoop cheese). Plus (and this is picky) all the measurements are in cups, which I can probably work with if necessary, but I find difficult to buy groceries for (if I need a half cup of grated carrot, how many carrots do I need to get?).

There were some recipes that were appetising and used ingredients I recognised, and I made a note of a couple of them, but on the whole, this was a bit of a waste of time.



The Lover's Knot, by Erin Satie

>> Saturday, December 05, 2015

TITLE: The Lover's Knot
AUTHOR: Erin Satie

PAGES: 300
PUBLISHER: Self-published

SETTING: 19th century England
TYPE: Romance

Memory is his weapon. Forgetting is her armor.

Sophie Roe was once a wealthy young lady, with an adoring fiancé. But that was ten years ago.

Now Sophie barely scrapes a living in trade. Her benefactor, the Duke of Clive, is dead. And the man she jilted is the new duke: rich, powerful, and determined to think the worst of Sophie.

Julian has never been able to forget Sophie. He intends to find out just why she rejected him—and why she’s lying about the old duke’s death.

Sophie is hopelessly entangled in the past. But as long-buried secrets and betrayals come to light, Julian may be the man to set her free...

I loved Erin Satie's début book, The Secret Heart. I loved the complex characters with fascinating passions outside of each other, as well as the mood and the vivid sense of place. The Lover's Knot shares many of those characteristics, but didn't work quite as well for me.

After 10 years Julian has returned to the part of the world where he grew up, having unexpectedly inherited a dukedom. Before he left he had been betrothed to Sophie Roe, a young local lady. However, that ended badly when Sophie inexplicably cast him off at their engagement party.

Now Sophie makes a living by making ink, the best ink in the country. Julian knows she's good at it, just as he knows she's good at forgery. He's convinced the letter supposedly written by the previous Duke as he lay dying is one, and that Sophie has a lot to explain.

There was a lot here that appealed to me. I love a romance with a painful past, and I loved all the stuff about Sophie's inks, which are more a mission than an occupation. I've never really thought about the subject all that much, but it was surprisingly fascinating.

What didn't work so well for me were the characters. Yes, they were complex, but that was kind of the problem. See, Sophie has a memory-related disability. Basically, as far as I could understand it, her memories start fading away pretty much as soon as they are formed. Sophie's way of dealing with this is chronicling everything that happens to her in her diary, and then coming back to it. What's in her diary becomes the reality of her past. Her diary says that Julian did something unforgivable on the night of their engagement, and even though she doesn't remember it, that must be the truth, because it's written down.

This was something that really, really didn't work for me. Part of it is completely me, not the book. One of my least favourite tropes is having a protagonist who can't trust their senses or mind. Mostly this arises in paranormals where there is a villain who engages in some sort of mind-control, but situations like Sophie's also qualify. Something in me just goes "nope" when this happens. I don't want to think about it, don't want to consider it. I guess I'm so terrified of not being able to trust my own mind that I refuse to engage with the possibility. I wish this wasn't the case (I do realise that this predisposes me against books with non-neurotypical protagonists), but it is. And this worked against my enjoyment of The Lover's Knot.

But this wasn't the whole of the problem I had with Sophie's memory issues. A big part was that I didn't feel it was very well done. I was never sure quite how it worked, and what we saw of it didn't completely make sense. It felt like some memories were fine, some weren't, and the reason a memory would fall in one or the other category was purely whether it needed to be ephimeral for the purposes of the plot or not.

And since the memory issue was the key thing about Sophie's character (even her passion for making the best ink, one that doesn't fade or deteriorate, is about her memory issues), she never completely made sense to me. It's a shame, because I love complex, flawed characters, but they need to feel recognisable to me. I never quite got why Sophie reacted in particular ways. One minute falling for Julian is the worst possible thing that could happen, because it was so awful when she loved him last time, the next she's read some old diaries and it's suddenly all fine, and I had no idea how she'd gone from one point to the next.

Oh, well. This won't put me off from reading more from this author. In fact, The Orphan Pearl is already on my TBR.

MY GRADE: A C+, since I rate purely on my enjoyment of a book.


Shining Through, by Susan Isaacs

>> Thursday, December 03, 2015

TITLE: Shining Through
AUTHOR: Susan Isaacs

PAGES: 464
PUBLISHER: Harper Torch

SETTING: 1940s New York and Germany
TYPE: Fiction

It's 1940 and Linda Voss, legal secretary extraordinaire, has a secret. She's head over heels in love with her boss, John Berringer, the pride of the Ivy League. Not that she even has a chance--he'd never take a second look at a German-Jewish girl from Queens who spends her time taking care of her faded beauty of a mother and following bulletins on the war in Europe. For Linda, though, the war will soon become all too real. Engulfing her nation and her life, it will offer opportunities she's never dreamed of. A chance to win the man she wants...a chance to find the love she deserves.

Made into the movie of the same name starring Melanie Griffith, Michael Douglas, and Liam Neeson, Shining Through is a novel of honor, sacrifice, passion, and humor. This is vintage Susan Isaacs, a tale of a spirited woman who wisecracks her way into heroism and history--and into your heart.

I discovered Shining Through in my late teens/early twenties, and read it again and again and again. I reread it again this year after not going back to it for quite a while (I don't have a review of it on the blog, which suggests I hadn't reread it since 2002. That can't be right, surely? I guess I stopped rereading frequently since I started my switch to ebooks). I'm always a little bit worried when I do that, afraid that the book won't be quite as amazing as I remember, or that it might have aged badly. I shouldn't have worried. Shining Through has held up wonderfully.

If at all possible, I would suggest reading this without knowing much about the plot and where it's going, so I'm going to try not to go into too much detail. The story takes place in the early 40s and it's about Linda Voss, a young Jewish woman from Queens. Linda doesn't quite fit in. Girls like her are supposed to go to secretarial school and then just get a job until they get married. Linda did go to secretarial school and got a job at an uptown law firm, but marriage to the men she met never quite felt right. Now she's an old maid, for the standards of the day (31!).

Linda also feels a sense of dissatisfaction with her life. She has nothing in common with the people she works with and lives with. None of them thinks what's going on in Europe has anything to do with them, while she obsessively follows the news and worries. The other secretaries would much rather gossip about the private lives of the partners in the law firm. Linda doesn't care.

Well, actually, she does care about the private life of one of the partners, the very one she works for. Because for all that she's different from the other secretaries, she has managed to become that old cliché, the secretary who's in love with her boss. John Berringer is handsome and cultured and very Ivy League. Linda pictures them gazing into each other's eyes while discussing the war in Europe, him taking her very seriously. Unfortunately, John is married, and to a woman just as Ivy League as himself.

But Linda's life is soon to be shaken up. She will get everything she thought she wanted and discover it's not quite what she expected. She'll also be pulled into the war effort in a way she would never ever have predicted.

This is a story full of memorable characters, drama and adventure. Best of all, there's just as much drama and adventure in the more domestic portions of the story as there is in the non-domestic ones. I also particularly loved the sense of place and time. Is it accurate? I don't really know. I do know it feels real and it's wonderfully vivid.

There are several elements that made this such a favourite for me. First, Linda Voss is one of my favourite characters ever. She's intelligent and funny and brave. I loved her self-awareness, and I also loved how that wasn't perfect and she sometimes managed to blind herself to what was in front of her (Isaacs is good at making sure the reader can see more clearly than her, while not making Linda come across as stupid). She felt real to me, and I loved her. I felt happy with her and felt crushed when she felt crushed. I was terrified for her and felt triumphant with her. I wanted her to be happy.

And this brings me to the romance. I don't want to say much about it, just that although we don't see a great deal of it, it's absolutely perfect and these two people are exactly right for each other. Sometimes it's good to be left wanting more.

The final thing that I adore about this book is the writing. It's narrated from Linda's point of view and her voice feels just right. Isaacs writing is brilliant. She creates characters that feel real, even the tiny secondary ones, and there were many little details and images in this book that stayed in my mind for years. As I reread it this time, I looked forward to old favourites. Isaacs is one of the very few authors, if not the only one, whose voice is so compelling that I would honestly be happy to read her shopping list.

I'm very glad I went back to this book, and I suspect it's going to be reread again soon. I will definitely be rereading other books of Isaacs' soon.


NOTE: The book was made into a 1992 film starring Michael Douglas, Melanie Griffith and Liam Neeson. If you watched it, don't let this put you off. This film differed substantially from the book and, IMO, wasn't anywhere near as good.


November 2015 reads

>> Tuesday, December 01, 2015

This was a pretty good month. I even read a romance I really liked!

1 - A Taste of Heaven, by Penny Watson: B+
review coming soon

Contemporary, set in a cooking competition. Our amateur heroine, a recent widow, is paired for the competition with a grumpy Scottish chef, for whom the competition is his last hope to save his restaurant. It's fun and really sweet. I liked it very much.

2 - Walk On Earth a Stranger, by Rae Carson: B
review coming soon

First in a new trilogy set during the Gold Rush. The heroine has the power to sense gold, and this book covers her journey west. It's fascinating to see just how difficult that journey would have been, and I liked the characters (except for the villain, who seemed a bit OTT), but this book really feels like the setup of the real story.

3 - Brother Grimm, by Craig Russell: B-
review here

Serial killer mystery set in Germany. I liked the detectives and their relationships very much, and I liked the initial setup of fairy tale-related crimes, but the development of the mystery wasn't as good as it could have been.

4 - My Favorite Countess, by Vanessa Kelly: C+
review coming soon

The heroine was the villain in a previous book. She needs to marry a nobleman with lots of money, but finds herself much too attracted to a doctor. This started out pretty good, but I kind of lost interest, as the conflict felt forced.

5 - All Of You, by Christina Lee: C+
review coming soon

New adult with a heroine who is a commitmentphobe and a virgin hero, who is determined to wait until he meets the right girl. It was ok.

6 - Illuminae, by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff: DNF
review here

Futuristic YA. The two main characters are teens who used to date, and broke up the day before their planet was attacked and they had to evacuate. It's narrated through a collection of documents. I had high hopes for it, but the snarky tone really didn't fit with what was going on.

7 - The Yiddish Policemen's Union, by Michael Chabon: still reading
review coming soon

This has a fascinating setup. It's a noir mystery set in an alternate history, one where the state of Israel never got started and Jews settled in a small piece of land in Alaska. That land is about to revert to the US, so what's the point of investigating a murder? I'm almost done with it and I've mostly enjoyed it, although I've found it hard to care about what happens to the characters.

8 - The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu, by Dan Jurafsky: still reading
review coming soon

Non-fiction. Food and linguistics. For instance, the first chapter analyses the types of words used in menus in different kinds of restaurants, and it's fascinating. I'm kind of struggling with the writing, even though the material is interesting.

9 - Unnatural Death, by Dorothy L Sayers: still listening
original review here

Lord Peter is intrigued by the tale of a doctor who isn't convinced that an apparently natural death is that natural, all evidence to the contrary. It's a neat case and I enjoyed following the steps of the investigation. Lord Peter is still in his pre-Harriet Vane 'silly ass' persona, but you can see the glimmers of the real person beneath that.

The book also works very well as a portrait of the time it was written (and set in). This is good, but also brings up some issues. There's a cringeworthy portrayal of a black man -he's a sympathetic character and there's no overt racism in our main characters (although a secondary character speaks quite shockingly), but some of the ways in which he's described felt very uncomfortable. Also, the sort of 'theme' of the book is women who don't live the society-sanctioned role of wife and mother, whether by choice or by lack of opportunity. Some of the ways in which this is portrayed verged from patronising to homophobic. This was very of its time, I guess, but it was still hard to take.


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